Review: A 'screen test' for Chamber Orchestra

09.22.15
Philly.com

Conrad Tao's An Adjustment, which opened the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia's 51st season, did not succumb to technology for its own sake. In fact, the electronic sounds he controlled from his screens dropped into the piece only in the most judicious way. The focus was on the interplay between the orchestra and Tao's Steinway, and any compositional magic - there was plenty - happened the old-fashioned way.

Each of the program's three works had a foot in two different eras. Léo Delibes' Le Roi s'amuse, Airs de Danse dans le Style Ancien layered standard orchestrations on old tunes that music director Dirk Brossé said reminded him of 16th-century composer Tielman Susato. The great pleasure in the Perelman was being right on top of the ensemble, to hear a kind of refined unity I don't recall this group having the last time I heard it live (radio can deceive).

Elsewhere, the cross-era connections rang even more clearly. Tao was also soloist in the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, which one wag noted starts with Bach and ends with Offenbach. He was a stunning soloist, but specifically so because he kept his monstrous technique on a leash. At age 21, rather than flaunting it, he used it for sincerity and wit - waiting a split second in certain entrances for a flash of humor, or holding back for emphasis. The opening was moving, and the way he paced mounting intensity in the last minutes uncovered the best in this work, but also mirrored the end of his own new concerto.

If Saint-Saëns touched on two eras, Tao integrated in the most imaginative way the current style of spiritual post-Romanticism and '90s techno club music. The electronic element was a clever manipulation of beats fed through two speakers on stage - clever not because it suggested humor or irony, but because it extended the impact of the orchestral texture. Cultural bridges were everywhere, but everywhere they elided naturally. The uneasy opening movement gave way to a subtle conversation that worked through despair, a realm both beautiful and creepy, a radiant climax and a brief stopover at jazz before ending in a haze of electronic-acoustical ecstasy.
 
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